Life, Liberty, & the Pursuit of One’s Own Name

For Tess Shelton, the battle to win easier name changing systems for trans people is personal. Tess’s girlfriend is trans, and through this relationship Tess came to understand that there are numerous cultural and systemic cinder blocks in place, whether by design or not, to trip trans people up in their journeys toward safety, liberty, and the pursuit of fun American things.

Being unable to update your ID creates gunk in the lives of trans people. Trans folks want to go out dancing, but it’s a bummer when the door person gets funny over your name, picture, and gender marker. Trans people want to travel and see the world, but lord does it take time when you get caught up with the TSA, or the DMV, or when you’re applying for a job online or doing any number of normal life things that are boring and cumbersome enough without concrete transphobia weighing you down.

Tess Shelton is a law student working her guts out to earn the chops, pass the bar, and get out into a world that needs young queer lawyers terribly. She identified the need for easier name change protocols and set upon organizing a way to gather and disperse information!

Through organizing many players across the board, Tess created a vision for a legal clinic to help people get over some of the systemic and jargon-heavy hurdles. In conjunction with Memphis TransLove they raised enough money to support over 30 people getting their names changed! The clinic was put on for free (lawyers and law students generously volunteered their time) so all funds went directly toward petition filing fees for clients who requested financial assistance. The fundraiser featured talented trans entertainers from the drag community like Al Nite Long and Fantasia Bordeaux! The Lamplighter Lounge in Midtown was the venue to be at for such a fabulous event!

It can be tough to know where to start or even what court to go to for something like this. In some states, like Arkansas, getting your name changed is the same process and same paperwork from county to county.

Yet in sweet Tennessee, every single county has a different protocol and a different court that handles name changes. If your head is starting to spin, well baby, join the rest of us.

Thankfully, clever foxes like Tess know the jargon required to get information out of a workforce of people that tend to be more conservative.

And really it comes down to information and feeling confident in your knowledge to ask for the right things and come prepared.

While you don’t have to be a US citizen to get a legal name change you do need to provide lots of different types of paperwork which can be difficult–from legal petitions to government IDs to birth certificates and in some counties, proof of residence.

Beyond the paperwork there are fees that are related, and many people within the system that believe that name change is a privilege, not a right.

But what if a vulnerable population is made only more vulnerable due to a lack of privilege and safety? That’s why we have to work to change hearts and minds. It’s hard enough to find safe income as a trans person, must our courts also devalue their experience with hoops of fire?

Sometimes a person can file an affidavit of indigency (also known as a “pauper’s affidavit”) to have fees waived. Fees that are also different in every single county in TN (anywhere from $166.50 in Shelby County to $264.50 in Rutherford County). But judges have the final say to accept or reject these affidavits, and in Tennessee, they often go unaccepted.

This is why rallying around causes like this are important. In a world where we have inflation, war, post pandemic brain fog, it isn’t fair to burden trans people and dehumanize them with endless stops and loopholes.

The happy ending to this story is that here we have Tess, an example of the legion of young gay professionals who will go out and make major differences in the world. That is something for our community to truly take pride in.

Beyond that, after having attended a clinic, Tess’ girlfriend indeed received her name change.

“I have never seen someone so excited to go to the DMV before!” says Tess when she finishes telling Focus about her journey.

Here’s to many more to come, and many more name changes, and many changes of heart.


Affidavit of Indigency/Pauper’s Affidavit
A formal document declaring that the person seeking a legal name change cannot afford the fee to file their petition and requesting a waiver or deferral of that filing fee. A process that requires sharing some financial information with the court. The court gets to decide whether to accept or deny this request.

Chancery Court
A court that has general jurisdiction over cases that do not involve a request for monetary compensation. In TN, chancery, probate, and circuit courts have jurisdiction over legal name change. In most TN counties, requests for legal name change are handled by the Chancery Court.

Probate Court
A court that primarily hears cases involving the distribution of dead people’s property. TN law gives probate courts, as well as chancery and circuit courts, jurisdiction over legal name changes. In Shelby County, legal name changes go through the Probate Court.

Legal Clinic
A program that provides free legal services, often to socially and/or economically marginalized people. These are useful for providing legal services to people who might not otherwise be able to afford them, as well as for providing law students hands-on legal education and experience working with clients.